Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thought and Language - George Orwell

In his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell talks about the relationship between our thinking and our words.  In the essay's second paragraph he uses an analogy to illustrate the problem and its solution:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Read by writing students for generations, Orwell's essay is much more than just a treatise on how to write a better essay.  His essay shows that seeing though the abuses of language can truly be a matter of life and death:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Good writers, Orwell argues, do not surrender to words; instead, they take charge, thinking through what they are saying and apply six specific rules that help to make thought more clear, more concise, and more cogent: 
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In one especially remarkable section of the essay, Orwell talks through the thinking process of using words to express abstract and concrete thoughts.  It describes how a write can control both thoughts and language, avoiding the bad habits that plague bad writing:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

No comments:

Post a Comment